Scholars have debated where precisely the Baal Shem Tov was born, few giving credence to the tiny village of Okopy (pronounced Akup). Most likely he hailed from Kolomyya on the slopes of the Carpathian Mountains and on the banks of the Prut River. Nearly 300 years have lapsed since the passing of the Baal Shem Tov and all the while the stories of his miraculous abilities have increased. Yet all fail to fully portray his greatness.
Orphaned from both of his parents at a very young age, he was nonetheless deemed a wonder-child by all who observed his unusual ways.
In his youth he was hired as a “behelfer” in a cheder, meaning he would escort young boys to their teacher and to shul in order to say “Amen” and “Yehei shemei rabba.”
His love of his fellow Jew – even toddlers – by that point nearly defies description. The Maggid M’mizretch commented upon those days, “Hallevai, if only we would kiss a sefer Torah on Simchas Torah with a fraction of the love the Baal Shem would kiss the young students.”
When he turned 18 years old, legend has it, he went out to the forests, as he was accustomed to doing, for special introspection in honor of his birthday. It was there that he met Elijah the Prophet, the first time that he had seen him alone and not in the company of hidden saints. And it was then that a new path in serving the Almighty was hatched, to be known as chassidus.
Yisrael (the Baal Shem Tov) saw his mission as encouraging the masses to have simple and pure faith and to pray with intense concentration. Critical was ahavas Yisrael and allegiance to pious Torah leaders. And everything was to be done with paramount joy and a constant awareness of G-d’s presence in all of life’s facets.
The Baal Shem Tov and a group of devoted followers would travel to the most faraway townlets to teach the children aleph-beis and rudimentary Judaism. They would establish educational systems for the youth and pay equal attention to their parents.
Focusing first on the lower classes and those most hard hit from the massacres and the pogroms, the Baal Shem Tov would not only raise their spirits but assisted in their livelihoods. Only then would he tend to the scholars who also sought his counsel.
The Baal Shem Tov’s message was not only tailor-made for the people, but it was precisely what they desperately needed to hear. Without fire and brimstone, righteous indignation or even a hint of castigation, he built up the bitter souls with a message of love.
Love for one Jew toward another, and unrestrained love of the Lord.
With boundless love and compassion, the Baal Shem perceived a spark, although sometimes dormant, of holiness in every Jew. It was this ember that he constantly tried to ignite. He never threatened or instilled fear, invoked purgatory or employed righteous indignation. His message was clear, simple and short: a fulfillment of the Talmudic dictum, “G-d desires the heart.”
Another principle that was drilled was that “no place is bereft of G-d’s Presence.” A philosopher once stated, “I took apart the world and didn’t find G-d.” In response, a violinist remarked to him, “That’s akin to me saying I took apart my violin and didn’t find music.” A person needs to look at the harmony of the whole world in order to behold G-d.
The result of the Baal Shem’s approach was magic. The masses flocked to him and found comfort and hope in lives that had been previously miserable and desolate. A heavy burden was lifted from their shoulders.
The Baal Shem Tov’s enthusiasm and pleasant countenance was contagious, and villagers freely welcomed guests into their modest hovels – fulfilling the Talmudic adage, “hospitality is greater than greeting the Lord.”
The concept of evil was thoroughly foreign to him. “What shall I do with my son? He is so wicked!” asked a despairing father. “Love him all the more,” was the characteristic counsel of the Baal Shem who shunned reprimands.
The Baal Shem mesmerized whomever he met, and seeing him meant falling under his spell. His repertoire of anecdotes, parables, metaphors and aphorisms was endless, and he appealed to the heart as well as to the mind. The Baal Shem Tov captured the hearts of the poor and the humble; everyone could approach him. The stories and legends of the Baal Shem Tov shine and sparkle in the darkness.
He taught a message that would soon become the cornerstone of chassidus: masochism and self-flagellation, behavior that had been considered the path of the pious at the time, were not the way to serve the Lord. The Almighty could only be served in a state of happiness, and song and dance are potent aids to achieving this goal.
There was nothing novel in what he preached, as all of these precepts can be found in Judaism. But the emphasis he placed upon them, and their combination, created a program that was revolutionary. The Baal Shem Tov was so imaginative and persuasive, possessed of such spirit and personality, that – virtually overnight – chassidus became the largest mass movement of Jews in the modern era.
It had been previously assumed that diligent Torah study and erudition in all of the minutiae of the law was essential for closeness to G-d, disenfranchising the common folk. The Baal Shem taught that there are different avenues open to the unlettered. Prayer is the key to G-d and the means of Israel’s spiritual elevation. It must be conducted with intense concentration preceded by daily immersion in a mikveh.
Joy is essential, nay critical, for Jewish life, and pessimism and depression cause sin and spiritual apathy. Repentance that causes depression and sadness, he preached, distances the Holy Presence.
Torah study and performance of commandments must be carried out enthusiastically, with only the purest intentions and without ulterior motive, all for the sole sake of fulfilling G-d’s will.
The tzaddik binds the Jewish people together and serves as a link between G-d and the masses who may require assistance in their spiritual quests.
The tragic events of Shabbetai Zvi and the Frankist debacle had forced the study of Kabbalah underground, and in 1756 the Vaad Arba Aratzos, or Council of Four Lands, adopted an edict restricting the general study of Kabbalah to men over the age of 40. Chassidus, at the behest of the Baal Shem Tov, reversed this and brought the study of Kabbalah to the forefront of daily activity.
Consequently the nusach of prayer was altered from Ashkenazic to Sephardic since it was more kabbalistically-oriented.
(To be continued)
Chodesh tov – have a pleasant month!
Those interested in screening Rabbi Teller’s acclaimed documentary, “Reb Elimelech and the Chassidic Legacy of Brotherhood” should contact firstname.lastname@example.org.Rabbi Hanoch Teller
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